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Who Do We Blame for Flappy Bird? Only the Human Brain

Posted: 10/02/2014 14:53

Flappy Bird didn't break the App Store. EA's Dungeon Keeper isn't an anti-game. And the people who play(ed) them aren't doing so against their will, or in contravention of natural justice, or in a sort of mindless stupor.

The truth, however unpalatable for those who think they know better, is that people play Flappy Bird, and Candy Crush Saga, and Ironpants, and yes even Dungeon Keeper for one reason, and one reason only: their brains enjoy it.

Now, I'm not a brain specialist, or a biologist, or even someone with a very good grasp of what terms to Google in order to pretend that I am one either of those things.

But as far as I have been able to make out, the process involved in the transaction of wills that is playing games is very simple and concise.

In a game, a player does a Thing - even if that thing is just sitting around for a day waiting - and whether they're successful, or even whether they're not, that thing means their brain does a corresponding Thing, which is pleasant.

That's it.

Call it 'reward-response', or dopamine distribution, or the Compu-Teach Conjecture, or 'flow' or just plain onanism. The point is that games exist to make your brain feel funny.

And whatever your opinion of Flappy Bird, it is impossible to deny that Nguyen Dong's game did this extremely well. As Keith Stuart explores in depth at the Guardian, Flappy's titanic rise through the App Store charts was not an accident. It was simply down to being very addictive, very annoying and very difficult. It was based on an old premise, but wrapped up in a new enough bundle of decisions to make it legitimately novel. That, done well, makes you $50,000 a day.

EA's Dungeon Keeper too, as inexplicable as it may seem, makes money, and it does so only because it makes the brains of its players happy.

Yes, it's a charmless, commercial remake of a beloved franchise - and one which based on its chart position hasn't set the gaming world alight. And yes, the user's interaction with it is largely reduced to waiting for things to happen over long periods. But what say you of gardening, or cricket, or any other time-intensive pastime, all of which reward the spectator's patience over their raw intelligence, and are all able to press the same Sparkly Buttons in the brain as Spelunky, Papers Please and Titanfall? The mechanics are clunky and the intent is cynical, but the brains of Dungeon Keeper's fans don't care. They press the button, they wait, the brain goes 'ping'. Fair dos.

The point is not that all games are the same - and especially not that all games are as good as each other. All the criteria by which games are measured - mechanics, graphics, controls, whatever - vary wildly, and make a difference to your subjective experience. Just look at the clumsy variety of Flappy Bird clones that exist online to see what made Nguyen Dong's version so good.

The point is also not that games aren't capable of being great art, the equal of any novel or film or painting. They are, and it is perfectly reasonable to hope for, and try to help, game makers to aspire to these goals.

The point is rather that for all the hand wringing and soul searching, we don't actually need to look very hard - or far - for the reason that Flappy Bird took the world by storm, or in a wider sense why simple, free (or ostensibly free) and even arguably very bad games often do very well in App Stores.

In fact, you only need to look about four centimetres into your own head, at the bit of the brain that lights up when you complete a military victory in Civilization. For it is the same bit of the brain that burns when you win a silver medal in Flappy Doge, the cerebral whatnot that melted with pleasure when you finished Mass Effect, and the dribble of goo that shone with the light of a thousand suns when you won the Star Cup in Mario Kart.

Games make your brain happy. So do many 'bad' ones. And like anything in life of which that is true - pop music, or food, or sunshine, or even love - you can't argue it away from the sidelinbes. You can dislike Flappy Bird. You can do all you like to promote the variety of time-killer you prefer. But you can't dismiss its success by claiming its fans don't know better.

The heart wants what it wants.

And the brain pings at that at which it pings.

 

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